Home Channels 3D CGI Jorge Gutierrez and the Bulletproof Heart Behind “The Book of Life”

Jorge Gutierrez and the Bulletproof Heart Behind “The Book of Life”

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Jorge Gutierrez
Jorge Gutierrez Sandra Equihua The Book of Life
Director Jorge R. Gutierrez and Sandra Equihua seen at Twentieth Century Fox and Reel FX Animation Studios premiere of The Book of Life on Sun, Oct 12, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Twentieth Century Fox/AP Images)

Born in Mexico City and raised in Tijuana, Jorge Gutierrez grew up on a multi-pop-cultural mix of Japanese anime, American Popeye cartoons, and Mexican Cantinflas movies. Over the objections of his father (who didn’t consider animation a “real art”), he attended the famed California Institute of the Arts, perpetually wondering why the Mexico and Latin-American culture he knew was never represented on screen. He began addressing this absence with his CGI master’s project “Carmelo,” won the 2001 Student Emmy Award and screened at festivals around the world. He has studied with animation legend Maurice Noble, and earned a creator credit on the Sony web series El Macho, and then another with his wife and muse Sandra Equihua for Nickelodeon’s El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera. Some of his other credits include stints as a writer on PBS Kids’ Maya & Miguel and Disney’s Brandy and Mr. Whiskers, and character design on Nickelodeon’s ChalkZone, WB’s ¡Mucha Lucha!, and Disney’s The Buzz on Maggie.

In 2012, Mr. Gutierrez approached Guillermo del Toro to pitch his vision of an animated kids’ film rooted in the Mexican Day of the Dead. The combination of 100+ degree temperatures, lawn work next door, and Mr. Gutierrez nearly falling into the pool led to what Mr. del Toro described as, “the worst pitch I ever heard.” Fortunately, Mr. del Toro believed in the vision of Mexico presented, and agreed to be a producer for the film. The Book of Life was released last year, earning critical acclaim and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Animated Feature. Toonzone was able to speak with Jorge Gutierrez via phone on the eve of the release of the movie on Blu-ray and DVD.

TOONZONE NEWS: First of all, congratulations. I read you’ve been trying to make this movie for 14 years, and now it’s here. That’s a really great achievement, I think.

JORGE GUTIERREZ: I keep saying that if someone told me 14 years ago that’s how hard it would have been and that’s how long it would have taken, maybe I would have given up (laughter).

TOONZONE NEWS: I’m very glad you didn’t.

JORGE GUTIERREZ: Thank you!

TOONZONE NEWS: The first thing I want to ask you about was something I’ve been wondering from the first time I saw the trailer. There’s that moment when Manolo turns around and he sees the Land of the Remembered, and I thought, “Man, that’s going to look great on home video when I can actually pause it and have the time to see it all when it’s not whipping by at 24 frames a second.” Then the Police Officer just tells him right off, “Don’t try to take it all in.” I’ve always wondered if you were thinking about home video and even the knowledge that people can pause the video on YouTube or whatever to take in all that detail that you packed into that frame, and all over the movie.

JORGE GUTIERREZ: Oh, absolutely. From the beginning. I’m a huge animation nerd, and I watch animated movies over and over, and live-action movies too. From the beginning, I said that as important as the theater experience will be, these movies live and age on video. This is how they live on, and so I wanted to make sure we make something that has enough layers — not just visually but also thematically — that you can watch it over and over and start catching the different sight gags and different details. We freeze-frame the hell out of the movie throughout the process to make sure everything connects. The super fan nerd in myself had to be satisfied. I’m super-hungry for that stuff. So we went out of our way to do that on purpose. And you know, that comment, “don’t try to take it all in,” that’s basically me telling the audience that.

TOONZONE NEWS: Yeah, that drew a really big laugh out of me because it’s exactly the prod you need at exactly the right time so you don’t fry your brain trying to do it (laughter).

JORGE GUTIERREZ: And throughout the film we have little moments, like the Goth kid asking, “What kind of story is this? We’re just kids!”

Jorge Gutierrez The Book of Life
“Don’t try to take it all in”

TOONZONE NEWS: I believe this is your first feature production, and your first big project in CGI, is that correct?

JORGE GUTIERREZ: Yes, my last student film at film school was CG, and then my first job was an intern working at Sony on Stuart Little. I just went away from CG after that because I wanted to concentrate on the story side and on the design side of things, so I worked mostly in 2-D for years. So The Book of Life is sort of my return to my roots and my return to CG, and obviously…(laughs) things have changed drastically in the past 13 years! It’s a welcoming back in a weird way to the medium that I started out with.

TOONZONE NEWS: Did you always envision this as CG?

JORGE GUTIERREZ: In my dream of dreams, I would have loved to have made this in stop-motion, but I think it would have cost $400 million dollars to do it in stop-motion (laughs). I was talking to Travis Knight, the head of Laika, and he kind of agreed with me. He said, “I think it was better that you did it in CG!” It was kind of conceived as a stop-motion thing, but CG has all these other things you can do. You can do a lot more cartoony squash-and-stretch, and all these more over-the-top things. That’s kind of what we went for. Like you said, this is my first movie, and I wasn’t sure I was going to get a chance to make another one, so I made sure to put every single thing I’ve ever loved into it.

TOONZONE NEWS: One of the things I was going to ask about was the decision to model the main characters as those wooden dolls. Did that come about because you had originally envisioned this in stop-motion?

JORGE GUTIERREZ: The inspiration for the wooden stuff, just like my student film where all the characters are wooden CG puppets, is that folk art and Mexican folk art is full of wooden figures. Pinocchio is also one of my all-time favorite movies, and so I wanted to do a sort of Mexican folktale with that look. From the beginning, we tried to make sure that that look became something that made the movie more of a fairy tale, and more of a magic-realist version of Mexico. By making the characters out of wood, you can also avoid things like blood and more realistic things. It stylized our movie in a way that we could talk about some of the subject matter in it that’s different and a little darker than in your usual animated movie, but we offset that with the stylized look and the materials.

Book of Life Joaquin, Manolo, and MariaTOONZONE NEWS: It’s unusual for the first couple of minutes to say, “Oh, look, they’re dolls,” and then after a while you just accept that you can see everybody’s joints.

JORGE GUTIERREZ: Yeah, it’s the shock of the audience going, “Whoa whoa whoa, they’re all wood!” If we don’t capture them emotionally, we’re screwed (laughs). That’s the whole other layer that’s taking you out of the story. Early on, that was a big concern with the studio. “How are you going to tell a story with wooden puppets? How is the audience going to relate to them? How are they going to emote?” There was a lot of back-and-forth, and a lot of moments where people just didn’t think it was going to work. So we finished one sequence, which is where Maria leaves town and leaves little Manolo and Joaquin. We showed it to the executives and all the producers, and we turned the lights on and everybody was crying. That was the moment when everybody said, “OK, I think the audience will feel for these puppets.”

TOONZONE NEWS: I remember reading about Snow White, and there was genuine fear at Disney Studios about the scene where the Huntsman tries to kill Snow White, because they were asking, “Are audiences going to believe that this drawing wants to kill this other drawing?” On some level, there’s nothing new under the sun.

JORGE GUTIERREZ: That’s the thing. Producers and money people are looking out for the best interests of the film, and there’s always going to be concern with something being too different or too new, because the history of film is littered with experiments that have been really successful, but also those that haven’t. So it’s always tricky. It’s a tricky balance when to take a risk and when to play it safe.

TOONZONE NEWS: You want to be ahead of your time, but not TOO far ahead of your time.

JORGE GUTIERREZ: Exactly! That’s what producers told me. “You want to be different, but familiar.”

The Book of Life Manolo MariaTOONZONE NEWS: I can imagine that the dolls and the nice sharp angles would have made some things easier in CGI, but were there unexpected surprises that hit you during production when you were actually working with them as models?

JORGE GUTIERREZ: Well, in the beginning, I thought it was going to make things easier. I thought we were going to be able to save a lot of money on cloth simulators and hair simulators and all the more technical things that happen when you’re doing humans and real skin. It turns out to not be the case, because making them move was really, really hard. In the beginning, I think the animation department wanted to murder me, because all these puppets looked really cool but it turned out to be really hard to move. But eventually, those guys are geniuses, and they figured out how to move them around and how to make the audience not look at the joints and concentrate on the emotions.

TOONZONE NEWS: I think one reason why they do connect with audiences is way they link with the music, which ties to my next question about the collaboration between you and Gustavo Santaolalla and Paul Williams. “The Apology Song” and “I Love You Too Much” are really key sequences in the movie. I asked Gustavo about that collaboration, but I also wanted to get it from your perspective. How did you guys collaborate like that to make that all work out so tightly?

JORGE GUTIERREZ: It was definitely one of the hardest things in the movie. I’ll walk you through what happened with “The Apology Song,” which I think is just brilliant. Originally, I knew it had to be a song there. I’m not a songwriter, and obviously I didn’t want to use any covers there. It had to be an original song. Gustavo was already working with Paul Williams on a Pan’s Labyrinth musical, and it was suggested to bring Paul in to write lyrics. We boarded the sequence, and I had Diego say the lines to spell out what we needed to hear from him. So he would apologize to the bulls, but he also apologized to his father. He spelled out what we needed. So I cut the sequence and we showed it to them. I even put Gustavo’s music underneath, just from Motorcycle Diaries, and told them, “Emotionally, this is what needs to happen. You guys now do your take, and do a song that has to hit A, B, and C. And make sure it’s gorgeous.” (laughs) That was the worst direction ever, right?

Jorge Gutierrez The Book of Life ManoloBut Gustavo is pretty fearless, he loved the challenge. So he and Paul watched the movie and worked together, and one day, out of nowhere, I get an email from Gustavo and the subject just said, “Apology Song.” That’s how we came by the name, because that’s what they called it and I loved that that’s what that song is. It’s very primal. It had been a kind of rough day in the production, and my wife Sandra and I were driving our 5-year old. So we pull over, connected my phone to the car stereo, and I said, “OK, it’s the rough demo of the most important song in the whole movie…” (laughs) And I played it and it’s kind of what you hear in the movie. It didn’t change at all. I just started crying because I was just so overwhelmed by the song. And my wife Sandra started crying, and our 5-year old saw both of his parents crying and so he started crying (laughs). So the whole family cries, but it was happy tears of joy over that song. So that became sort of the heartbeat of the movie, that one song, and from that, everything grew.

TOONZONE NEWS: There was one interview or a podcast where you said it was great to show this movie to your son, and then show it to your father. Was that kind of spread something you always had in mind for this movie, and were there any scenes that you felt you really had trouble getting that balance right with?

JORGE GUTIERREZ: As a lover of animated movies, my favorite ones are the ones that are working on multiple levels and have lots of subtext. From the beginning, I know that the audience of children is incredibly important, but I also want to make sure I give something to the parents, the teenagers…kind of to everybody, which is really, really hard. So my balance between those two things were my son and my father. My father does not like animation, and he’s not into the medium at all. My son loves all of it. So it was tough to try and convince both of them about certain things. In the end, my son now watches the whole movie. He loves it. The first time I showed it to my dad, as you can imagine, just by watching the movie, I’ve had a little bit of a tumultuous relationship growing up with him.

Jorge Gutierrez The Book of Life ManoloTOONZONE NEWS: So some of Manolo is based in that?

JORGE GUTIERREZ: Of course! I wanted to be an artist. My dad told me that was going to be very, very difficult, and obviously he was right. But Manolo and Carlos, his father in the movie, those arguments are exactly what my father and I had growing up. When I finally finished the film, I hadn’t showed him the whole thing in a few months. We went to the premiere in Mexico City. So we watched it, and he sat next to me, and he kept squeezing my arm whenever something big or emotional would happen. By the end of it…my dad is older, everybody was talking, and he leaned over and said, “Jorge, this is the best conversation we’ve ever had.” And at that moment, I just lost it. I started crying. He started crying. But it was one of those things where I got to tell him, “Dad, I love you, but I’m not like you. And I will do things to honor you, but I will not live my life by what you want.”

I talked with Guillermo about this, but we live in such a cynical time. There’s so much smarminess and snark out there, and I truly believe that the most rebellious thing you can do…the most punk rock thing you can do these days is to be open with your heart and be earnest and be honest. And when you make something that’s that heartfelt, then none of the criticism, none of the snark, none of the attacks work, because a pure heart is bulletproof.

TOONZONE NEWS: The movie is coming out on Blu-ray and DVD soon. Can you talk about what’s next for you yet?

JORGE GUTIERREZ: They haven’t announced it, but I’m happily writing and designing away at Reel FX on our next movie, and hopefully they announce it soon. But I can give you the scoop that it’s going to be a Mexican kung-fu movie.

TOONZONE NEWS: Outstanding.

JORGE GUTIERREZ: And honestly, I don’t have to worry about competition because I don’t think anyone is doing that out there.

Toonzone would like to thank Jorge Gutierrez for taking the time to speak with us, as well as Sandy Sirirat and the rest of the 20th Century Fox PR team for setting up all our interviews for The Book of Life. Keep up with Jorge Gutierrez via his official website, his Facebook page, or his Twitter feed. The Book of Life is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital download/on demand services. Make sure to check out our interviews with composer Gustavo Santaolalla and actor Danny Trejo (who plays Grandpa Luis in the movie).

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